Why We Should Bring Back Summer Pell Grants

Although a full Pell award more than covers two semesters at community colleges, students enrolled in accelerated programs often need to take out loans.

This illustration can only be used with Sophie Quinton's story that ran in the 8/2/2014 magazine. 
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Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

At Des Moines Area Com­munity Col­lege, in Iowa, it’s pos­sible to earn a weld­ing dip­loma in one year and a nurs­ing de­gree in two. To gradu­ate on this ac­cel­er­ated time frame, however, stu­dents need to take classes dur­ing the sum­mer as well as dur­ing the school year. But 42 per­cent of DMACC stu­dents re­ceive Pell Grants, and Pell Grants can only be used for two semesters per year — which means if you use them in the fall and spring, you can’t use them over the sum­mer. As a res­ult, al­though a full Pell award more than cov­ers two semesters at DMACC, stu­dents en­rolled in ac­cel­er­ated pro­grams of­ten need to take out loans.

(Dav­ide Bonazzi)Stu­dents got some re­lief in 2010 and 2011 from a short-lived, ad­di­tion­al Pell Grant. But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion elim­in­ated that Pell Grant — which was known as the “year-round” or “sum­mer” Pell Grant — in 2011, made ef­fect­ive the sum­mer of 2012.

Now law­makers want to re­store year-round ac­cess to Pell dol­lars, al­beit through two very dif­fer­ent pro­pos­als. House Re­pub­lic­ans are seek­ing to turn Pell awards in­to one six-year grant that stu­dents can draw from at any time un­til the money is spent. Sen­ate Demo­crats, on the oth­er hand, want to bring back the year-round grant.

Sum­mer study can help stu­dents not only to gradu­ate early — but to gradu­ate, peri­od, says Rob Den­son, pres­id­ent of DMACC. “We know that stu­dents who take more cred­its and can move through at a faster pace are more likely to fin­ish,” he says. A 2009 re­port from the In­sti­tute of High­er Edu­ca­tion Lead­er­ship & Policy at Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity (Sac­ra­mento) found that tak­ing sum­mer courses could keep stu­dents on track to gradu­ate.

About 41 per­cent of un­der­gradu­ates in the United States cur­rently re­ceive Pell Grants, ac­cord­ing to the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment. The need-based pro­gram has grown as col­lege costs have ris­en, fam­ily fin­ances have weakened, and high­er edu­ca­tion has be­come an es­sen­tial gate­way to many middle-in­come jobs.

Full-time stu­dents can re­ceive only one Pell award per year. When Con­gress tried to solve this prob­lem by al­low­ing stu­dents to re­ceive ex­tra Pell fund­ing for sum­mer study, the year-round grant ended up cost­ing much more than law­makers had an­ti­cip­ated. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of stu­dents used the grants, and al­most a third of the money went to stu­dents at pricey, ca­reer-ori­ented for-profit col­leges, The Chron­icle of High­er Edu­ca­tion re­por­ted in 2011.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided to cut the year-round Pell Grant, ar­guing that de­gree com­ple­tion rates hadn’t ris­en enough to jus­ti­fy the ex­pense. That may have been a hasty con­clu­sion: Two years of data aren’t enough, ar­gues Sara Goldrick-Rab, pro­fess­or of edu­ca­tion­al policy stud­ies and so­ci­ology at the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin (Madis­on).

In any case, law­makers are now back where they star­ted. Sandy Baum, re­search pro­fess­or of edu­ca­tion policy at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity’s Gradu­ate School of Edu­ca­tion and Hu­man De­vel­op­ment, thinks Pell awards should be com­pletely re­struc­tured. “I would say, you get the same money for tak­ing the 30 cred­its dur­ing the year, no mat­ter how you dis­trib­ute them,” Baum says.

House Re­pub­lic­ans’ pro­pos­al for a “Flex Pell Grant” re­sembles Baum’s idea. Re­pub­lic­ans would like to tell stu­dents the total amount of Pell fund­ing they’re eli­gible for, then let them spend the money as needed. Sen­ate Demo­crats worry that “flex­ib­il­ity” really means “cut­ting fund­ing,” be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans also want to re­duce the total cost of the Pell pro­gram.

Both sides, however, seem to agree that some change is needed. The pre­vi­ous ex­per­i­ence with year-round grants sug­gests that seem­ingly small tweaks to the Pell pro­gram can have sig­ni­fic­ant con­sequences — es­pe­cially for stu­dents’ pock­et­books. Says Goldrick-Rab: “It’s very clear, on the sum­mer Pell is­sue, this is about the needs of stu­dents.”

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